Bringing "The Breath of the Wok"
to Your Sautéed Vegetables
Wok Hay is the Chinese language alliterative for what's also called "The Breath of the Wok"
The concept seems to be shrouded in mystery, kind of like what's up with that kitty of yours. Who knows. Well, Cooky Cat will (as usual, and you're welcome) cut to the chase.
Wok Hay has to do with that slight browning/smoky flavor you get when vegetables are sautéed at high temperature in a wok.
You can buy a wok if you like, it's a great utensil. But you don't need one. The deal with wok cooking is it is designed for the kind of high temperatures you just don't get on your usual kitchen stove. A wok does very well though for large quantities. Get a wok* or don't, either way we're showing you how to get Wok Hay anytime in any good enough skillet.
This article features vegetables. Meat dishes also qualify, but in Chinese cooking, the meat is cooked separately first then mixed in after the readied vegetables. So, if you want to add a meat into your vegetables, we won't object. Just that this is not intended to be a "How to Cook Chinese" piece.
Not to confuse the issue, but we like to cook some vegetables Italian style, sautéed with lots of garlic in olive oil. Spinach, zucchini pieces, broccoli flowers, even broccoli rabe are top choices. We don't do Brussels Sprouts Italian style (i.e., garlic), but we want to mention those little wonders because we just like them so much.
So here's the deal. The question has always been when sautéeing vegetables, do you parboil first? The emphatic answer is, no!
Do this instead.
Let's say you're sautéeing broccoli flowers in garlic. Heat some cooking grade but decent olive oil in a pan, sautée a whole mess of your garlic until it's soft, add the washed and well-dried broccoli flowers. Toss to heat through. Then . . . let it stay in place in the pan without stirring for about 4-5 minutes at high heat. A nice browning should have developed by then. At that point you can toss again and let stay on the heat some more to get more browning, but that is an option. At this point the broccoli flowers have developed the desired browning (don't be shy, get 'em good and brown) but need some steam finishing. Add some water and/or cooking wine, cover, and let steam for a few minutes until done to your taste. Season to taste, of course. Spice as you will. Toss some browned fresh bread crumbs to wow the crowd.
In the method described above we have found that steaming afterward develops more flavor and lets you control the level of doneness. Parboiled/steamed before hand you could easily lose control of the finished doneness of the dish.
Now, go get some Wok Hay! Capish, Italiene?
*Buying a Wok . . . (For cooking with gas, of course.)
A traditional wok with a round bottom is best. Flat bottom woks, you just as well could have a high sided skillet. The round bottom is a feature in the stirring. Carbon steel, please, and as big as you can stand. Make sure it's heavy gauge carbon steel; it'll have very little give when you squeeze the sides together. Woks get up to a couple of feet in diameter. Choose according to the amounts you generally prepare and the size of your stove burner. We prefer the every day kind with loop handles on each side. If you prefer the version with a stout handle, get the one with a wood insert tip. Keeps cool. Hand hammered, wow; but pricier. The carbon steel wok will need to be seasoned (video below), but once prepped it will give solid service and develop a nice darkened patina inside and out.
With the round bottom you'll need a ring to keep it stable on the stove top. Make sure that the ring is designed to fit snug on the stove top so that it is stable. While you are at it get a Chinese spoon and spatula set.
There is a specially shaped set of wok spoon and spatula that is worth adding to this kit. The spatula fits closely to the round shape of the wok. (That's also why we recommend the round bottom wok.) The spoon is handy to help push things around and for serving. It can also be used as a cup for gathering your sauce elements. The spoon and spatula come in different sizes, so make sure your choice is proportioned to the size wok. Also, for the utensils, stainless steel for easy cleaning. Get the ones with the cool wood tips.
Be sure to have a plastic scratchy pad or bamboo brush to clean your wok. If you observe the procedure in a Chinese kitchen, after the dish is completed and turned out onto the serving plate, the wok is rinsed with hot water and scrubbed with a handled brush. No soap! Stuck places, get the plastic scour pad or bamboo brush. The full bore wok stove is set up with a water source directly above the wok. Also the stove fire hole is set with a ring whose height is set a little above the stove top surface. That surface is designed to take the spill from the wash water and take it away down a drain. Once in a while you may want to clean your wok with soap and water. Just rinse well and re-season. No problemo.
If you have the space and the shekels, get a wok stove. It'll produce the mega BTU's to get the high heat that'll teach that wok to talk. (It breathes and talks!). If you're one of those with a showpiece kitchen, then a wok stove is your ticket to wow the Joneses. Everybody has the restaurant stove and the walk-in sized refrigerator. It used to be all's you needed was an espresso machine. Now, it's how big and fancy your espresso unit is.